Artist Jessica Ogden is standing at the entrance to her new studio at Bromley, an 18th century property in the hills of the north coast of Jamaica when an avocado pear drops with a thud from its tree onto the zinc roof of her workshop space.
She breaks out into a big smile. It is at once a familiar and nostalgic sound bringing back precious memories. As children, living up in the hills above Kingston, she and her brother would hear that sound and race out to the garden to collect dropped avocados.
Filled with nostalgia and memories, the textures and colours of her childhood play a large part in Ogden’s diverse body of work. Her mother, an artist, collector, and gallery owner died in 2015, closely followed by her step-father and Jessica now finds herself moving back to Jamaica to take on their art gallery, ocean front home, and rental cottages. After living and working in Europe for over twenty years, being back in the island of her birth is both a joy and a challenge.
Her parents met in Jamaica when her mother, who was born in Wales, fell in love with the island while on assignment as a fashion model. She became a permanent resident in 1966, first taking up a job as a kindergarten teacher, then moving on to fund raising, working with Operation Friendship, an inner city charity where she was responsible for developing a successful line of local Christmas cards. Jessica’s father, English-born David Ogden, was a highly respected cinematographer, director, musician and illustrator.
He passed away while Ogden and her brother were still young and after his death, her mother moved the family out of Kingston to the north coast to live in a wattle and daub cottage right on an idyllic stretch of beach. Here she began to produce her iconic handcrafted cedar boxes, covered with reproductions of Jamaican art. In 1980 her mother bought a 19th century Manse, Harmony Hall, just outside the resort town of Ocho Rios which, with the help of artist friends, she restored and turned into an art gallery and restaurant, actively supporting local crafts and championing local Intuitive artists. In 2003, Harmony Hall was declared a national monument by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.
It is quite a daunting legacy but one Ogden is well equipped to take on, juggling the demands of the villa and its two rental cottages, injecting some new life into the gallery as well as ensuring that she leaves some time and creativity for her own work. After a tribute to her mother at Jamaica’s National Gallery last year, Jessica has, this summer, helped put together an exhibition of her mother and step-father, Peter Proudlock’s, personal collection which includes some major work by leading Intuitive artists such as Mallica ‘Kapo’ Reynolds, Albert Artwell, and Birth ‘Ras Dizzy’ Livingston. It is an extraordinary rich collection also featuring the work of local and ex-pat artists like Colin Garland and Graham Davis.
After four years at boarding school in the US, Ogden attended the Rhode Island School of Design, but soon decided it wasn’t for her. At eighteen she went to London with a friend and made the decision to stay, in 1988 entering the Byam Shaw Fine Art School intending to become a sculptor. England felt familiar to her, having gone often as a child but more importantly it was an exciting and stimulating time to be in a London alive with innovation and creativity. The vibrant Young British Artists, YBA, such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst were pushing the boundaries with their often shock-inducing work and cutting-edge fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano, and fashion icons such as David Bowie, were creating a diverse range of high camp, Goth, rave and romantic styles. Never one to follow convention, this resonated well with Ogden and she found herself turning to fashion, steadily forging her own path often using scraps of fabric expertly crafted and woven into her clothing. It is here that she began to draw on influences from her childhood in Jamaica with its tropical colours, as well as memories of being taught to sew by her mother who made her own clothes, often reusing fabrics, as well as Ogden and her brother’s school uniforms. The patched aprons the Jamaican market women wore, her mother’s batik vest and a patchwork dress she has kept as a talisman along with a worn leather sewing case, all played a part in her work. This was a way of staying connected with the island of her birth and honouring her heritage.
This concept was quietly subversive, providing the artist with a potent and subtle way of bringing the past into her work while remaining innovative, and running counter to cheap, fast, throw away fashion. Her first collection in the early 1990s consisted of seven pieces all in white, black or grey, and included the use of shredded muslin on which she stuck a label printed with ‘100% polyester’ as a type of punk statement. This approach to fabrics, using hand printing, paint and stitching, as well as cheese graters, nail guns or hammers to distress the cloth are typical of Ogden’s subtle resistance to convention.
At this time she also worked on Oxfam’s No Logo project, refashioning donated clothes and becoming a pioneer in sustainable fashion wear. Launching her own label in 1993, she was taken under the wing of fashion PR maven Kate Monckton. She also began to cast friends and their families and models from agencies in Jamaica for her shows. In the early 2000s she began to tire of being in an office and was ready for a new challenge. In 2006 she declared bankruptcy and began to work with the Paris based A.P.C ready-to-wear brand founded by the Tunisian Jewish fashion designer Jean Touitou. restyling and customising unsold stock. A new life began for her when, urged by Touitou, she moved to Paris and began to make and design quilts for A.P.C. using fabric remnants and travelling to Japan and India where artisans made up her designs. Quilting was a natural progression for her as she had used this element in her early clothing designs. It was also an excellent way of combining her creative skills while at the same time using repurposing as a way of giving back to society, the importance of which her mother had constantly reinforced on her growing up in Jamaica.
Life has become very busy since her return to Jamaica. She is still designing quilts for A.P.C., recently showcasing some examples at an annual art auction and farm-to-table fusion event held by Jamaican artist Laura Facey Cooper at her organic farm Mt. Plenty. But she has not lost sight of her goal to find space and time for her own work. Establishing a new studio in the hills where she can work without distraction is a first step. Here, with views of rolling green hills and pastures, she works on her quilting designs, which have shifted from the reworking of antique examples of earlier days, into a more ‘painterly’ design process. She is also working on a commission by Jean Touitou of A.P.C., a collage depicting the journeys he has made over the years in the Mediterranean. She painstakingly hand stitches the pieces of fabric – a form of meditation for her. She is also developing a new line of straw basketry for the gallery to which she has given a new look, still managing to put together a retrospective of her work, entitled Still, at a gallery in Marylebone, London this summer curated by Professor Carol Tulloch and designed by Professor Judith Clark. It is an important glimpse into the collected work and mind of this multi-talented artist, and what she professes to have found acting as a bridge between the past and the future and a reminder that her creative work is not finished.
She still is making time to relish being back on the island of her birth, working in the garden, enjoying daily swimming in the Caribbean sea and tending to her pack of dogs.